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As if the world matters

By Noel Preston - posted Tuesday, 25 July 2006

The Task

We live in a world where, according to Jeffrey Sachs in Time Magazine (March 2005) more than 20,000 people die each day because of extreme poverty.

But the question before us today invites us to look beyond the eradication of such poverty, which has many causes, to a more fundamental, systemic reality. The terms used are inequalities and opportunity. Our focus is therefore on the gap between the resource rich and the resource poor, between those with almost unlimited life chances and those with relatively few life chances.

I endorse the implied suggestion that while poverty elimination is necessary and desirable, it is an insufficient goal. Anti-poverty strategies which remain simplistically linked to neo-liberal models of development through growth and a consequent “trickle down” effect may provide charity but often overlook equity concerns.


It follows that the challenge before us in that little word “how”, which leads our assignment, is to come up with policy ideas that are social justice strategies requiring radical changes which, in the words of Kofi Annan, “break with business as usual”.

If our focus is on reducing the gap between those who have access to the resources which nurture human well-being and those who are severely disadvantaged, in brief, how do we picture this gulf of inequity? So as the elite affluent expand their repertoire of luxury holidays, endless gadgets, exclusive entertainment and celebrity or executive salaries, an underclass of more than a billion live each day on the brink of absolute destitution. (According to the new Economics Foundation in 2005 “between 1990 and 2001 for every $100 worth of growth in the world’s income per person, just $0.60 found its target and contributed to reducing poverty below the $1-a-day line”.)

In 1960 the income gap between the fifth of the world’s people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest countries was 30:1. By 2000 it was close to 100:1. In between is a group of three to four billion who may be described as the “managing poor”. Of course the picture is more complex than these statistics convey, and part of that complexity is that the inequity gulf is in evidence within nations as well as between nations.

There are ghettos of gross poverty in the most affluent nations while there are rich elites in most of the poorer nations. Australia is not exempt from this generalisation while in the United States where there are 200 billionaires, one in seven adults is functionally illiterate.

The constraint

Adding to the picture is the fact there is a connection between inequalities and reduced opportunities on the one hand, and degradation of the biosphere and the natural environment on the other. (The world presently has 25 million environmental refugees, a figure that could escalate dramatically under the effects of global warming.)

The greatest ecological damage is generated by the societies of the affluent minority, as might be anticipated given the disproportionate consumption of natural resources including non-renewable energy in our societies. To take the question of greenhouse gas emissions - the so-called developed regions of human society are responsible for six times more emissions than in developing regions.


Given this reality about consumption patterns and the vulnerability of the Earth’s life systems, what then of the challenge to reduce inequalities and enhance opportunities?

It would be unsustainable to aim at global social justice by replicating the use of natural resources and the lifestyle of the one-fifth affluent world, because it would take three to five planet Earths to achieve. This is the massive constraint in considering the question before us. Moreover, as many voices from the nations trying to catch up with industrialisation have rightly said, it would be unjust to deny the poorer world the benefits Western societies have in abundance as a result of industrial-technological advances delivered substantially via growth-driven economies.

Here is our dilemma: how do we achieve global sustainability with social justice? Actually I want to use another term for that combination, eco-justice. Eco-justice will not result from replicating the patterns of economic growth in the past 50-60 years - that is unsustainable. Nor can it be by retaining existing social and economic arrangements - that would not reduce inequalities or enhance opportunities.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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